HKDSE, IB, Covid-19 - how to make sense of the stress and sadness you’re feeling

  • Failing an exam might feel like the end of the world, but it’s just a small part of a much bigger picture
  • Keep these things in mind when you feel like you want to break down
Susan Ramsay |

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We totally understand if you're stressed out. This last year has been really tough!

Right now, tens of thousands of Hong Kong’s students are facing the most stressful time of their lives.

Not only do they have to cope with the HKDSE or IB exams, but they have come out of a year of fear and uncertainty as the pandemic gripped the world.

What’s more, at any moment, they could be sent to quarantine or experience an overnight building lockdown.

When you’re so intensely stressed that you break down crying, go ahead, and cry your eyes out. As the saying goes, tears wash the soul. But you might want to keep a few other things in mind that will help to make more sense of what you’re feeling.

Signs of study burnout and how to handle it

Your brain is not fully on board

We know now that the human brain is still maturing past the age of 21. We also know that this maturing starts in the back of your brain and works forward. At the very front of your brain is the prefrontal cortex. This part of your brain is used to plan, solve problems, think about consequences, and, most of all, control your impulses.

Teens are not yet able to fully engage this part of their brain. Instead, they rely on something called the amygdalae (there are two) to make their decisions. An amygdala is basically the complete opposite of the prefrontal cortex. This little almond-shaped area of the brain is all about emotions, especially fear and aggression. It’s so good at fear that it starts the fear reaction in the brain before you are even conscious of it.

Your brain is still maturing, and will until you're in your 20s.

It’s not easy to figure out which parts of the brain do what. The two amygdalae fit into a system that is responsible for many things.

But, most importantly you should understand that as teens, you feel things intensely because this is where your brain goes for answers.

How to do a mental health check up

It’s not over, and that’s good

Many students are fed all sorts of information about the HKDSE or IB exams that is not necessarily factual. The way people in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia are taught to think about education is that it is all or nothing. Either you’re the top student, or you’re rubbish. Either you get top marks, or you’re doomed to a life of failure. But that’s just not true.

If this exam falls apart, you can take another. You could take a different exam in a different system. You could do all sorts of things.

When you’re in university or working in your future career, you won’t rely on this one exam to forever determine your future. These exams are not the end. In truth, they are the beginning to a new phase in your life and what you want it to be.

Take back control and don’t let anxiety rule your life

Your perspective is different

For you, right now, this exam is the biggest thing in your life. But in 20 years’ time, it will be but a bump on your road of life. When you’re 50, it will be a blip, and so on.

Dr Stella W. Y. Chan, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, explained this perfectly a few years back when we were chatting in a restaurant.

She grabbed a napkin from the table. “If I fold this up,” she said, “and I hold it up in front of my eye, that is all I can see.”

What you're going through right now is only part of the bigger picture.

She put the napkin to her eye. “I can’t see anything else, and I think that this is everything.”

Then she moved the napkin away, to show how small it really was compared to the busy restaurant.

She said teens need to see that what they are going through is a small part of a much, much bigger picture.

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